Northwestern St.-Tennessee Preview
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) – Tennessee has a golden opportunity to make a little history of its own.
Much has been made of Connecticut chasing history with a chance to win its ninth national championship and break a tie with the Lady Vols.
Well, Tennessee would like to be the one to break that tie and end its Final Four drought while reclaiming its status as one of the nation’s elite teams.
The third-ranked Lady Vols (27-5) open NCAA tournament play Saturday against Northwestern State (21-12) as a No. 1 seed for the first time since 2011. They’ve won seven straight games and 13 of their last 14. Their scheduled first- and second-round games are on their home floor. If they reach the Final Four, they’d get a chance to play for a national title in their home state.
Tennessee is the only school to reach the tournament every year since the NCAA started running the event in 1982, but the Lady Vols haven’t been to the Final Four since their 2008 national title.
”We’re living in the present,” coach Holly Warlick said. ”We just know what we’ve tried to accomplish this year. It’s about this team and what we’re doing now.”
Tennessee has lost in the regional final each of the last three seasons. During Tennessee’s five-year absence from the Final Four, Connecticut has won three national championships to match the Lady Vols’ record of eight titles. The way the brackets are set up, the Lady Vols conceivably could meet Connecticut in a championship game at Nashville, a three-hour drive from Tennessee’s campus.
”It would be great for the program,” said center Isabelle Harrison, who was born and raised in Nashville. ”We haven’t been there in a while, and that’s something we look forward to and we work toward every year. I just think it’s time that we really focus our mind game by game and get to where we need to be.”
Tennessee, though, isn’t quite at full strength. Warlick said Monday she doesn’t anticipate point guard Ariel Massengale being available for at least the first two rounds of the tournament. Massengale hasn’t played since inadvertently getting hit in the face Jan. 23.
But the Lady Vols still have plenty of reason for optimism.
Tennessee has gone 12-1 with redshirt freshman Andraya Carter starting at point guard in Massengale’s absence. Freshman Jordan Reynolds has backed up Carter capably and delivered a breakthrough performance in helping Tennessee win the SEC tournament.
”Just from the SEC tournament, we have some confidence,” top scorer Meighan Simmons said. ”We’re not overconfident. It’s just that extra oomph of where we want to be at by the end of the season. It’s an amazing feeling, to have that much confidence.”
Northwestern State didn’t have much confidence two years ago when it went 6-23, so it brought in co-head coaches Brooke and Scott Stoehr to try to turn around the program. The husband and wife team didn’t need long to see results, leading the Lady Demons to the Southland Conference championship this season and first trip to the NCAA tournament since 2004.
"From where we were two years ago, to sitting up here," Brooke Stoehr said, "it’s just an unbelievable feeling, and I’m not sure any of us could put into context."
Brooke Stoehr said it has been a long two years, and coaching together gets difficult at times.
"I’ve never been around a group of young ladies that just believe in each other and believe in what we say," she said. "There’s just something special about them. … These young ladies have tremendous character. I think at times that gets overshadowed a bit, but when you get into moments like this, that is when it comes to the forefront. I couldn’t be more proud and happy for them."
Northwestern State has won seven straight and will be making its third appearance in the tournament.
"It means a lot because we went through hard work and everything to get to this point," leading scorer Trudy Armstead said. "A few years ago, we didn’t have the pieces to the puzzle, and now, we have a group of girls that seem to click together. It has brought us to this point."